Submitted into Contest #221 in response to: Write a story where ghosts and the living coexist.... view prompt


Historical Fiction


For a few brief minutes, Hannah was able to look back on the emerald green vista of her homeland and breathe the cool, clean Irish air before she was herded below to her quarters in the hold of the John Knox, the ship that was to carry her and three hundred more of her country folk to the promised land of British North America.

Like most, she had slaved to raise the two pounds needed for her fare so that she could join her mother, brother and sister who had gone before her, six months earlier. They had promised to write and send enough money for her passage but, in all that time, Hannah had received no word.

It was a curse upon the Irish people that the one crop upon which they depended had failed yet again. The resulting famine had accounted for the deaths of more than one million with another million fleeing abroad, scattering, according to their purses. Still, the English overlords, without any sympathy, pillaged the country, transporting livestock and other crops that could have saved the starving population.

This ship, the John Knox, had been named after a Scottish nobleman, counsellor to Mary Queen of Scots, centuries earlier and its conditions were as grim and miserly as that man’s reputation. It had no cabins and transported only the poor of Ireland whose pathetic situation made the captain and crew think of them, and treat them, like mere cargo.

Almost all passengers brought no food on board with them, the cost of their fare having been swallowed up on the price of their ticket but, according to law, the captain of the ship was to allow, each day, one pound in weight of bread, rice, flour, biscuit or oatmeal per passenger. Why would a captain do as he was told if it meant a few extra pounds in his pocket at the end of a voyage and who was to police this legislation in the middle of an ocean? Even if the prescribed amount of food had been allotted, it was barely enough to survive in any case.

But if any of the passengers, being herded below on that fateful December day in 1849, thought that starvation was their greatest threat, they were sadly mistaken. They were used to being deprived of food, the pangs of hunger and the lack of nourishment. They were not used to the two greatest menaces that awaited them: cholera and typhoid.

As Hannah descended into the hold, the place that was to be her living and sleeping quarters for the next four months, her heart sank. Dark, stinking, airless and, she would find, infested with fleas, she questioned whether she would be able to survive such conditions for so long. She was a spirited girl of just sixteen years old but life had been extremely difficult for her ever since her mother and siblings had departed, half a year ago.

All around her, others, mainly women and children, were weeping at leaving their homeland and the thought of the long voyage that awaited them. Whispers had abounded of the unsanitary conditions on board but, so desperate were the people of Ireland, who could afford the fare, to start afresh in a land that had no lack of foodstuffs, that the rumours were cast to one side.

Hannah’s mother, unable to afford berth for all four of them, had drawn lots to see who would accompany her and who would be left behind. Hannah’s brother, Patrick, and her sister, Nuala, were overjoyed that they would be sailing with their mother but, swiftly realising the harsh truth, that Hannah would be left behind, their happiness turned to tears. Their mother had remained stern and defiant, though, inside, her heart was breaking, knowing, only too well, that it was better to save two of her children at least.

The day of their departure had been, quite simply, the worst day of Hannah’s life, abandoned to her fate, watching that same ship, the John Knox, sail further and further away from Cobh and on out into the Atlantic Ocean, carrying her beloved family with it.

Hannah’s mother had given her a few pennies, the very last of her money, and this had allowed her to find cheap lodging while she sought work. She had been fortunate that the public house, next door to her lodging house, had been looking for a kitchen maid and, with the job had come a room to be shared with the other young girls that worked in the pub. The work was very hard but Hannah knew that work was scarce and had worked herself to the bone to make a good impression. In this way, she had saved every single penny towards her fare although she had expected, at any moment, a letter to arrive from abroad with news of her family’s safe arrival and a few shillings towards the cost of her ticket. No such letter ever arrived. This meant that, after several months, despite all of her hard work and diligent saving, Hannah was still a pound short of her fare.

For some time, an English soldier, a frequenter of this public house, had been making eyes at Hannah as she helped, as part of her duties, serve meals to patrons. Over time, this had turned into open flirting and, eventually, an overture. Although a good girl at heart, Hannah had succumbed, on payment of one pound, paid in advance.

Now, as Hannah bedded herself down alongside others squeezing into the tight space below deck, thinking back on her deed, what she had resorted to in order to afford her ticket, she cried herself to sleep.

It was two days later that Hannah began to itch, waking to find several red bite marks upon her legs and torso. Others, too, suffered the same attacks. The hunger soon followed when they found that their designated ration was not to be even half of the regulated amount. Further ignominy occurred when they were informed that there would be no water with which to wash; water being considered too precious to be wasted on anything but drinking and even this was subject to strict rationing.

Each passenger was allowed on deck for only thirty minutes per day, in rotation, but, such were the weather conditions that most opted to avoid the freezing rain as it was almost impossible to dry oneself again and there was a general fear of such illnesses as pneumonia and influenza.

In this way, the creaking, leaking ship continued on its course and, after two weeks at sea, conditions in the hold had developed hellishly. The lack of washing facilities had led to an almighty stench that pervaded the entire area below deck. The rough seas had caused the small ship to be bounced up and down on huge waves, giving rise to an outbreak of sea-sickness; the stink of vomit intermingling with the general malodorousness.

Hannah had done what she could to help others more affected than she, particularly little children. But, then, one morning, a month into the dreadful voyage, she, herself, was forced to go up and out on deck, even though the ship was in the throes of a dreadful squall because, she knew that she was about to be sick and refused to allow herself the indignity of vomiting where she lay. Clinging, for dear life, to the ropes of a sail, she vomited, fortunately, over the side of the ship.

The rain, though icy cold, was refreshing to her, cooled her down, swept away the fetid odour that had clung to her clothing, cleaned her greasy hair and, best of all, slaked the thirst that had come to torment her. When she, staggering, had returned to the hold, other women stared at her knowingly. Hannah was with child.

Unable to dry herself properly, Hannah was forced to live and sleep in permanent damp as she repeated this early morning ritual until, one day, she developed a fever and was forced, against her will, to remain where she lay. As she tossed and turned, she felt a cool cloth being pressed to her forehead, such relief. She opened her eyes to see which of the women had come to help her, wondering how precious cool water had been obtained for this purpose.


Hannah could not believe what she was seeing; her own beloved mother cooling her brow with a cold, wet cloth. So real was it that Hannah closed her eyes and allowed herself to feel the love and tenderness that she had missed so much. When she heard her mother sing the words to a lullaby that she had sung to her so many times as a young child, Hannah knew that she must be dreaming in her delirium.

The following morning, Hannah felt so much better. She recalled her strange dream but put it down to her feverish imagination. The weather had cleared to such an extent that the sun had emerged for the first time in many days and there was a general clamour by the ship’s occupants to take their turn on deck. Hannah, too. The sun was warming and, to her immense relief, Hannah felt her clothing to be almost dry. Though still afflicted by the tiny, annoying bites of the fleas, Hannah, unlike most, had resisted the urge to scratch and this had somewhat prevented her outbreak from getting worse.

As Hannah sat on deck, her face in the sun and her back against the stern, the woman alongside her spoke.

‘The morning sickness has stopped, dear?’ Hannah nodded.

‘I’d say you’d be about two months gone. I was a midwife. I have a wee bit of experience with these things. The father?’

Hannah shook her head.

‘Be careful, dear. There are those that don’t take too kindly to women bearing children out of wedlock. Sure, there’s nothing of you so I don’t t’ink you’ll show much before we arrive’.

At that moment, Hannah’s eyes widened with incredulity. There, in front of her, across the deck was her dear brother, Patrick, smiling his cheeky, boyish grin.


She rose on trembly legs and made her way across to the other side of the ship, having to grab hold of barrels and cases to enable her to reach her brother.

‘Patrick? How? What...?”

‘Shush, girl. You’re not to worry about a t’ing. We’re here to look after you. ’Tis going to be tough but you’re going to make it. We’ll make sure of that’.

Hannah looked behind her at the woman with whom she had been speaking to see if she, too, could see her brother but the midwife was looking up at the sun. When Hannah turned back, her brother was gone. Herded back down into the hold, Hannah was confused and puzzled but, nevertheless, bolstered by the two apparitions she had experienced.

Inevitably, the precious drinking water became infected with bacteria and disease broke out among the passengers, as if conditions were not already wretched enough. As was her wont, Hannah did her best to nurse the afflicted and, among them, was the woman, the ex-midwife, that Hannah had become attached to.

The first to die were the weakest; the children. The crew wasted no time, not wanting bodies to decay and add to the putridness of the hold, and the corpses were thrown, without ceremony, overboard. That was when the sharks were first spotted, devouring the dead and following in the wake of the ship in hope of more victims. This caused horrendous fear among the travellers at the thought of the fate that awaited them should they die.

The midwife, Hannah knew, was getting weaker every day and was not long for this world. One day, as Hannah was doing her best to tend her, she opened her eyes and spoke.

‘I saw him that day, your brother. I pretended not to see when you turned back. Thank you for looking after me, dear. I saw my grandfather just now. He’s waiting for me in Heaven. ’Tis time for me to go’.

She closed her eyes and died. Hannah wept, too stunned to know what to say.

The outbreak of disease grew worse, the closer to North America the ship grew. Weak from hunger, Hannah walked among the sick, nursing to the best of her ability. The captain, perhaps afraid of arriving in Gros Ile, Quebec with no passengers still alive, relaxed his restriction on food and water, enabling the survival of many.

Fatigued, exhausted, close to breaking down, Hannah was visited each night by her mother, soothing and calming her, embracing her with love. This was no figment of her imagination for it was as real as could be. In her rare moments on deck, Hannah would see her brother and they would spend joyous moments together, no words being spoken, but their love for each other something special.

Alone, Hannah fretted for her twin sister, Nuala, for no sight of her had she seen. This could mean only one thing; Nuala had not survived the crossing several months earlier. Thinking this, Hannah was distraught. Of all her family, she loved Nuala the most, the two sharing an unbreakable bond. The thought of never seeing her again was unbearable.

At last, they arrived at the quarantine station at Quebec but, so crowded and so overrun was the island with infection that it was decided that the passengers of the Fort Knox were to quarantine on board for thirteen days. This decision caused despair among these unlucky people as they were forced to continue their misery on board, albeit no longer at sea.

Many more passengers died. Those well enough to venture on deck were dismayed to see the crowds of people protesting at yet more disease ridden Irish, soon to set foot on land, banners held high: Go home, Irish. We don’t want you. We don’t need you. Take your diseases back to Ireland.

So unfair, thought Hannah. We are not the cause of disease, we are the victims.

Throughout the quarantine period, Hannah had been comforted by the presence of her mother and brother and she knew, only too well, that she would never have survived, thus far, without them. She longed to tell them how the thought of them had comforted her, longed to embrace them for real and, together, once more, mourn, as a family, the death of Nuala.

Finally, the day came to disembark and, as they lined up in front of the gangplank leading down to the quayside, Hannah was pleased to see a large police presence holding back the protestors. She turned to a woman beside her.

‘We made it, thank God’.

‘Aye. We did but, if it hadn’t been for my mother and sister, tending me, I’d have died weeks ago’.

‘You had the visions, too?’

’They were no visions. They were as real as could be. They were here, on board this ship, I tell you’.

Hannah nodded and asked:

‘Will anybody be meeting you here?’

‘Aye. My mother and sister. ’Tis only 30 miles downstream to Quebec. They’re sure to have made the trip. You?’

‘Hopefully, my mother and brother’.

As Hannah felt her feet touch the quayside, she wobbled slightly as she struggled to regain her land legs. In front of her, at the end of the jetty, to the left, was the noisy crowd of protestors, police straining to hold them back but Hannah only had eyes for the crowd to the right. Good Irish faces, all of them, come to be rejoined with their kin who had survived the voyage. Hannah’s eyes scanned the dense throng for sight of her mother and her brother but could not see them. Her heart sank at the thought that she might have to now find her way down the St. Lawrence river in search of them. Suddenly, she heard her name being shouted:

‘Hannah. Hannah’.

Turning expectantly towards the sound, she was stunned to see her sister, Nuala, pressing through the gathering to join her. Hannah wept tears of joy to see her sister, the person she loved most in the world and who she thought had been taken from them.

The sisters embraced, overjoyed. Still scanning the crowd for the rest of her family, Hannah asked:

‘Nuala, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you. But where’s mother? And, Patrick, where’s he?’

Nuala broke from her sister’s embrace, her joy turning, immediately, to sorrow.

‘They didn’t make it, Hannah. The typhus. They died on that same ship, the John Knox. The coffin ship’. 

October 21, 2023 04:05

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Shirley Medhurst
00:39 Oct 29, 2023

A deeply moving account of a tragic tale. Very well told, Charles & obviously well researched. Bravo 👏👏👏!


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Kathryn Kahn
23:57 Oct 28, 2023

I noticed your story because you and I chose the same name for our main characters this week, but how different the stories themselves are! This history/ghost story is so well told, so interesting and suspenseful and dramatic. Great job.


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Mary Bendickson
17:42 Oct 24, 2023

Just knew that was going to be the outcome. Great telling of difficult history.


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